Lucky Charms of Donsol
'Now', said Mr Onyot, our Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO). His dedicated team of 2 spotters and a boat man had worked hard to fulfil the aspirations of visitors. Pulling down the mask to seal in my eyes and nose, I jumped in the water.
Butanding is the name for the whale shark in the Philippines. Initially a sleeping island, the discovery of the whale sharks had contributed to the ecotourism of the island since 1998, when a diver had advised the fishermen to let them be instead of chasing them away. From being perceived as scary due to it's massive size and protruding fins on the waters similar to what the Jaws had made sharks notoriously feared of, to being pests that destroyed fishermen's nets, the island today had progressed much due to the prosperity that ecotourism had brought to the place. I call the Butandings the lucky charms of the island.
It had been one of my many dreams to see the whale shark one day. Initially looking for a weekend short dive in the small islands of Singapore, fate had somehow bring me to discover this small island in Philippines that claim to practice responsible ecotourism. When I read that March to May is their migratory spot in the Philippines, I didn't want to miss it. Just like what it had claimed -responsible ecotourism, I did not see fishermen attracting them by feeding the Butandings chum, or food, to increase the possibility of sightings to visitors.
I observed and evaluated my environment before jumping in. Using breaststroke which I was so familiar with, I swam towards the BIO. But 'aw man', I had miss the attempt of the first sighting. Slightly disappointed, I swam back towards the white boat. The boat was made stable with two long wooden stabilizers parallel to the boat's main body, one on each side. The stabilizers made them look like pond skippers on the waters. I like the boat which was stable. We haven't had any seasickness. Maybe it was the ginger pills which had taken effect.
Sitting by the port side of the boat again, I got ready my fins and mask. It was 15 minutes later after the long anticipated 'get ready', by the BIO was heard again. This time I had adapted to the seemingly fast pace of events, and I was determined to swim faster. And, know what, freestyle was the stroke to use. I felt that I was swimming so fast. I vividly remembered that it was a short moment with the gentle giant. I couldn't believe that this was it. Their white spots and light grey body shimmered with the light that penetrated from above.
On the next day, we had a researcher from LAMAVE, who had asked if she could join us on out boat to carry on her research. We were 5/6, so we had one space, so why not. It was nice to have her as we've received nuggets of information.
Have you wondered how is a whale shark identified? We learned that whale sharks have spots unique to each individual beside it's left gills. As the whale shark grow, so will their white spots, but the angle between the white spots will remain the same throughout their growth. So, the angle between the spots on the space beside it's gills will help the researcher identify the whale shark to study their behavior. So why not right gills? I believe the left gills are a constant.
Recalling from what I saw, the visibility of the waters was 4-5 meters. It was not the clear blue really beautiful pictures on the internet. While not having the most Nat Geo views, I'm glad to know that the a factor to the less than clear waters was due to being plankton rich waters, which are food for the them.
SB, with limited snorkeling experience, was bold. I didn't remember him fancy swimming that much. But there he was in the open waters, confident enough to go without a life vest, which allowed him to perform a little free dive to see the gentle giant at a different angle. For reward of his bravery, our BIO actually had a photo of him with the gentle giant. Me in contrast, a regular breaststroke swimmer, a certified diver, who had developed an irrational fear of diving, felt more comfortable in a life vest. My views consisted of mainly plan views, so were my pictures and video. The message here is choose what is the most comfortable to you.
The Butandings are wild creatures. We went, and could only hope for a higher chance to encounter them them in season, stopping by to feed, along the routes of their migration. There is no guarantee that a visitor can see one at any point of time.
The Butandings had brought us to Philippines for the first time. We got to experience extroverted friendliness from the locals, met nice people (These experiences actually made me feel like an ambassador of Singapore, as well as a diplomat.), and also swerving ourselves from offers we didn't want.
What a soul lifting experience and privilege to swim alongside the world's largest fish.